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Current time:0:00Total duration:7:34

From tomb to museum: the story of the Sarpedon Krater

Video transcript

[Music] when I was in high school one of my favorite objects to visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a Greek vase by an artist whose name is you fro Gnaeus this dais is decorated by you furnace with a scene from the Trojan War Sarpedon a son of Zeus has died in the battlefield and one thing that the Greeks were afraid of if they died on the battlefield was that their bodies would be neglected so Zeus has sent two messengers the winged deities sleep and death to take Sarpedon back home they're lifting him up so that his torso is exposed to us so that we can see the beautiful delicate work in that abdomen and the Greece thought that actually the best time to die was when you were young and beautiful you'd never have to know the indignities of getting old and the painter has expressed that not only through the beauty of the human body the definition of the musculature but also in a particularly signal Greek way representing the face as serene even in the face of death and in perfect profile and you can tell you furnace must have been very proud of this face because he signed it right across the top on one side of the head of Hermes the messenger god who's guiding Sarpedon soul so you fermius painted me like the pot is speaking and the viewers of this pot would have read these texts out loud there's no such thing as reading silently in the ancient world so you can imagine them drinking wine talking about hypnosis Tana Tosa new phroneo this pot is an exceptionally good condition and that's especially clear in the decorative banding that surrounds the major frieze where we see the figures there are these beautiful pas mats or the drawing remains wonderfully sharp which is even more incredible when you consider that you fro Gnaeus would have painted this very quickly before the pot dried too much and we can see the individual lines would have been laid down with a syringe to make a bead of color and we're seeing it in a state that is not very different from the way it would have been seen when it was first made about 2500 years ago which is why this pot was so sought-after when it came onto the market in 1972 the Metropolitan Museum of Art a million dollars for this day's the director of the Metropolitan said this race was so important it would rewrite art history he thought the drawing was the quality of a Picasso of a Leonardo da Vinci it is a scalar example of attic red figure vase painting a style that we believe this artist introduced and that allowed for the detailed representation of the human body that was so important to the Greeks as they move towards the Classical period and the reason it's so well preserved it spent those 2500 years in a tomb in the Italian town of Trovatore it was purchased by the ancient Etruscans and buried so the pot was made near Athens and was exported bought by an Etruscan that is the culture that existed just before the Rome and it was buried in a tomb the Etruscans are known for their elaborate burials which preserved things like this for us but which provide a very tempting target for tomb robbers who try and find things in Etruscan tombs to sell on the art market and that's exactly what happened in the early 1970s when a thief identifies a tomb and begins to dig they're looking for the most valuable treasures which means that they're willing to destroy everything else that they find along the way to robbery does irreparable harm not only to objects but to archaeological evidence for example we don't know whether the owner of the tomb ever used this space or not because by the time it got to the Metropolitan Museum it had been cleaned and put back together if archaeologists excavated tomb they can see the residues on the inside of pottery to see whether they held a last funerary meal and that knowledge is lost permanently it will never be recovered this incredibly important things could have been even more valuable by analyzing residues and pottery found in tombs we can do things like track ecological conditions see what climate change has been like from 2,500 years ago to the present so how did the pot make its way from a previously unknown tomb to the Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then back to Italy where it is now it all started with a car crash police went investigating phem that a glove box was stuffed full of photographs of dirty broken antiquities and after doing a lot of investigating they eventually he was part of a smuggling ring that was headed by a figure named Giacomo Medici who had a warehouse in Switzerland filled full of Antiquities and filled full of records records of this days being sold to a jeweler who sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this day's actually changed more than art history it changed the way that we understand these elaborate networks of illicit trades prior to the purchase of this day so there have been plenty of looted antiquities bought by American museums but nobody really cared the museums knew that they were probably looted but this base caused so much publicity of so beautiful people wanted to know more about it and then they were horrified at the thought that this ancient culture was being destroyed in order to produce a few master works like this in American museums the museum should have known better but they were offered a cover story that offered just enough plausible deniability that it allowed the museum to turn a blind eye which was at this historical moment not so uncommon true the story they got was that this face had been owned by a Lebanese art collector and that his grandfather had bought it in London in the early nineteen teens but they really should have asked more questions so the day's ended up at the mat on a lovely pedestal in the middle of the Greek galleries and a mint was rightfully very proud of it but our awareness of the damage that is done by grave-robbing develops in the next couple of decades and this phase becomes increasingly problematic and once the Italians raided that warehouse in Switzerland there is no longer any deniability for the mint one of the things that the Italian authorities found in this warehouse was a Polaroid of Medici proudly posing next to the Sarpedon base in the Metropolitan Museum interestingly the way that international law works there was no legal right for the Italians to reclaim this vase but the public relations aspect of it was so bad that the Met in 2006 did return it to Italy when the days was repatriated that is when it was returned to Italy it went into the Etruscan Museum in Rome with a lot of pomp and ceremony this was a great achievement by the Italian law enforcement agencies it was ultimately returned to Chava tree the town where it was dug up from illegally so many years ago so now instead of millions of people seeing it thousands of people cute what is our responsibility now in the modern world where should object reside and another thing that changes that question is the issue of the technological reproductions we can make and so maybe our technologies do change the equation of course looking at a reproduction is never going to be as good as looking at the original but if we look at reproductions we're not increasing the risk of looting so I think the sacrifice of looking at reproductions is worthwhile to make sure that these sites aren't looted anymore that we never lose the archaeological information that goes along with the beauty of these ancient images [Music]